Phuket: Where Tropical Paradise Meets Culinary Delight
Phuket, a gem among the world's top travel destinations, has always beckoned adventurers in search of pristine white-sand beaches, crystal-clear waters, and swaying palm trees. In 2022, this enchanting island played host to 9 million tourists, albeit a dip from the peak of 15 million in 2018. While the coastline is dotted with luxurious resorts and hotels that truly deliver the goods for beach lovers, there's a culinary hitch in the paradise.
Most popular tourist areas on the island, like Patong, often fall short when it comes to food. Surprisingly, it's easier to find borscht, burritos, or burgers on these major beaches than an expertly crafted Thai curry. Even dining at your hotel or resort is likely to offer a watered-down, overpriced version of Bangkok-style Thai cuisine. It's as if the island's vibrant and delectable southern Thai cuisine is almost entirely neglected in these spaces.
But here's the exciting secret: for an extraordinary fusion of Thai and Hokkien Chinese flavors, coupled with the breathtaking beaches, you need to venture into Phuket Town. It's arguably Thailand's most underrated food destination, with a handful of exceptional dining experiences sprinkled elsewhere on the island.
Unlike the rest of southern Thailand, Phuket-style cooking is all about moderation, with mild, well-balanced flavors reigning supreme. Many of Phuket's iconic dishes bear Hokkien Chinese names, and here, soy sauce often takes the lead ahead of fish sauce. The result of decades of cultural intermingling between Hokkien immigrants and Thais has given birth to a unique fusion cuisine, affectionately known as Baba.
Now, let's dive into some of the island's best dishes and the places to savor them:
Nam Yoi Restaurant: Nam Yoi is a charming and homely establishment where locals take their grandmas on special occasions. With its rustic atmosphere, reasonable prices, and delectable cooking, you might find yourself returning daily. A photo menu with English translations will guide you through Phuket-style dishes like the crunchy, funky shrimp chile crisp and southern Thai cuisine, such as the fragrant coconut milk soup with shrimp.
MeeTonPoe: Phuket's signature noodle dish, mee Hokkien, is a must-try. These yellow wheat noodles, fried with a mix of pork, seafood, and greens, deliver a smoky flavor, topped with a savory gravy and a perfectly set egg. MeeTonPoe sets the standard for this delectable dish.
Raya Restaurant: Raya, one of Phuket Town's most renowned restaurants, owes its fame to its crab meat with curry and coconut milk. This spicy and rich curry, with generous crab meat chunks, is served with thin, round rice noodles. The charming location, a former mansion, and their take on local dishes like steamed pork with pepper and garlic make it a must-visit.
Kanom Jeen Pa Mai: For a dish that unites southern Thais, look no further than khanom jeen at Phuket Town's Pa Mai. You'll be presented with thin rice noodles, which you can top with your choice of several curries and a variety of condiments and garnishes, including vegetables simmered in coconut milk and crunchy deep-fried anchovies.
Lock Tien: This pint-sized food court at Lock Tien in the heart of Phuket Town offers a crash course in local cuisine. From Loh ba (deep-fried porky bits) to mee Hokkien, your taste buds will dance with delight. Finish your meal with o-aew, a Phuket-only dessert of shaved ice.
These are just a taste of the gastronomic wonders that await you in Phuket. From Thai seafood at Laem Hin to authentic Burmese flavors at Mingalar Coffee Shop, this island is a culinary paradise waiting to be explored.
Don't miss the bustling food markets either. Cham-Cha Market and Phuket Town Market offer a plethora of local dishes, including Chinese-influenced Phuket specialties and an array of delectable sweets and snacks that you won't find elsewhere in Thailand.
Phuket isn't just a tropical haven; it's a place where your taste buds can embark on an extraordinary journey through the fusion of Thai and Hokkien Chinese culinary traditions. So, as you bask in the beauty of its beaches, center your dining adventure in and around Phuket Town, and embark on excursions to savor standout meals across the island. Your taste buds will thank you for it.